Wednesday, May 5, 2010

IQ and School Choice

Charles Murray, infamous co-author of The Bell Curve (a book which comes to the conclusion that racial inequalities are the product of genetic intellectual inferiority), argues for "school choice" in the New York Times:
There are millions of parents out there who don’t have enough money for private school but who have thought just as sensibly and care just as much about their children’s education as affluent people do. Let’s use the money we are already spending on education in a way that gives those parents the same kind of choice that wealthy people, liberal and conservative alike, exercise right now. That should be the beginning and the end of the argument for school choice.

School Choice is a strange concept.  The argument is that parents in poor neighborhoods, which tend to have schools that on average perform lower, ought to be able to send their children to better schools, which tend to be in better neighborhoods.  We all talk of "better schools", when in reality we are talking about better neighborhoods, meaning those inhabited by individuals with more human and social capital, and are better able top support their children's academic development.  Although to someone like Murray, we are talking about neighborhoods largely selected by IQ.

If the specific goal of public education is to give every child a quality education, then we need to do that.  To the extent that kids in poor neighborhoods aren't receiving it because they go to school with other poor kids, then we need to offer them that - and not just the "squeaky wheels" whose parents manage to score a ticket out.  "Choice" has nothing to do with it.

I suppose a case could be made that, were we to simply shut down all schools in poor neighborhoods, a school choice system might be an interesting way to force socioeconomic integration.  But that isn't what is being proposed.

It is fitting Murray, who in the Bell Curve failed to account for the profound differences in language and cognitive stimulation that poor kids receive, which is entirely a product of the parent's lack of education, resources, etc., again ignores these environmental factors.  He does write that "cognitive ability, personality and motivation" come mostly from home.  But his lack of interest in addressing policy solutions to this problem is telling.  Based on his prior work, we know that what he really means by this is that those qualities are inherited. 

He follows this logic and seeks preferential treatment to the few parents who request transfers for their children, while leaving behind the majority of poor children whose parents decline transfer.  Because if home environment does not play a significant role in a child's development, then we are left blaming either the child's genes or the school.  In either case, Murray's support for school choice continues his conservative tradition of seeking to favor the wheat, and to discard the chaff.

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